The titans of traditional media are desperately trying to transfer their business models into the digital realm. Since subscriptions have never produced sufficient income, all these models depend on advertising revenue.
Unfortunately for them, the Internet rejects advertising.
Mass marketing flourished in print, on TV and on the radio, but only because those media all share a crucial characteristic: A passive audience.
I don’t mean completely passive. Some crude exchange mechanisms do exist. For instance, I could call in to a radio show or write a letter to the newspaper, and I could also buy a printing press and distribute my own content. But those mechanisms have crippling limitations on audience participation, so the conversation overwhelmingly occurs in one direction — from anchor to viewer, from expert to layman, from owner to consumer.
This set-up benefits the advertiser. His message reaches a captive audience member, who, before the invention of TiVo, would need serious persistence to avoid commercials. This was especially true on the airwaves, where stations synchronized commercial breaks to force us to endure blither blather.
Audience passivity also benefited advertisers in terms of suppressing criticism. Because of barriers to information distribution, both financial and ideological, consumer groups had much less reach than corporate marketers.
The game has changed.
With the Internet, I am active. I decide what content I want, and then I access it via the shortest possible route (unless I feel like browsing), and I do this whenever I want. If ads block my route, I am annoyed. If they pop up at me, I close them down. If they arrive in e-mails, I filter them out. If they play before my video, I snarl at them.
When ads appear alongside my desired content, I have virtually no reason to pay attention to them. If I want a product, say a digital camera, I read a review site and consider the extensive, consumer-generated information. We have a newfound voice. We can now publish instantly and freely.
In an article on TechCrunch, Professor Eric Clemons outlines four premises that explain why he thinks, as he puts it, “the internet is not replacing advertising but shattering it.” Clemons, who teaches at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, says, in short:
- We don’t trust ads.
- We don’t want ads.
- We don’t need ads.
- Ad space is plentiful and therefore not profitable.
I reference Clemons, as I referenced Taylor in an earlier piece, because his thoughts influenced my own. But, as with Taylor, I have disagreements.
Premises #1 and #2 are true on the Internet, but they are also true generally. When we watch TV, we want to see the program, not the commercials. We don’t trust commercials either. All things being equal, I might buy a cereal I’ve heard of in an ad instead of one I haven’t heard of, but that’s not because I trust the ad. Rather, it’s because I’m familiar with the product, and “familiarity induces preference.”
Premise #3 identifies the critical change. We’ve never trusted or wanted ads, but now we don’t need them either. On review sites, I can expose myself to more products and learn more trustworthy information about them.
Premise #4 would fail without premise #3. Ad space is also plentiful in the physical world, but only some of it can reach mass audiences. Internet traffic is finite; it concentrates in certain hubs. If ads were still needed by consumers, marketers could potentially target them at these hubs.
So the Internet will shatter advertising, and I propose that this is reason for celebration. Note that the overriding purpose of an advertisement is to persuade me to buy or support something. It presents information in the context of persuasion, and so it cannot be expected to be objective and honest.
Insofar as the Internet provides a robust oversight mechanism (e.g. consumer reviews), it produces a more meritocratic market. Products and services thrive, not because mass advertising has persuaded us or familiarized us, but rather because we actually trust and desire them.